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by Bamber Gascoigne

Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989) - original surname Wertheim


American writer, noted for her popular histories. Tuchman was praised for her lucid style, narrative power, and portrayal of the protagonists in world dramas as believable human beings. Meaning, in Tuchman's view, emerges not from preconceived design but from the aggregation of details and events that fall into a pattern. Tuchman was a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Her subjects varied from the Trojan War to the Vietnam War, from description of medieval daily life to the portraits of world leaders of the First World War.

"A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit of governments of policies to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defended as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why does holders of high office so often contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggest? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?" (from The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, 1984)

Barbara Tuchman was born in New York City; she was a third-generation native of the city. Both of her parents were of German-Jewish origin. Her grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was Woodrow Wilson's Ambassador to Turkey and her father, Maurice Wertheim, was a banker, who bought The Nation magazine from the Villards when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Alma (Morgenthau) Wertheim (1887–1953), her mother, was a an accomplished vocalist and a music patron, who founded the Cos Cob Press to issue new scores; it later became Arrow Music Press. Aaron Copland dedicated the score of his Piano Concerto (1926) to her. Tuchman was the second-born of three daughters.

As a child Tuchman was a voracious reader. Among her favorite writers were  Lucy Fitch Perkins, George A. Henty, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexandre Dumas,  and Jane Porter. Tuchman was educated at Radcliffe College and Cambridge, Mass. Her education at Radcliffe was in literature and history primarily, a combination which she later learned to be mutually benefical. Tuchman never earned a doctorate but she lectured at universities and received several honorary degrees. She has said that the single most formative experience were "the stacks at Widener Library where I was allowed to have as my own one of those little cubicles with a table under a window . . . Mine was deep in among the 940's (British History, that is) and I could roam at liberty through the rich stacks, taking whatever I wanted." (World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 1449)

From 1934 to 1935 Tuchman was employed as a research assistant at the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York and Tokyo, where she worked on a project of the IPR, The Economic Handbook of the Pacific Area. Before returning to the United States, she visited Peking and contined on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Moscow and further on to Paris. Tuchman started her career as a journalist contributing to several magazines. She was the editorial assistant of The Nation, owned by her father at that time, a staff writer of War in Spain, and an American correspondent of New Statesman in London (1939). In 1943, Tuchman's experience of Asia earned her a place on the Far East desk of the Office of War Information in New York.

The Lost British Policy, Tuchman's first book, came out in 1938, after the Loyalist had lost the Spanish Civil war; she saw this as the end of the liberal world. In June 1940 she married Lester R. Tuchman, a physician; they had three children. Tuchman was a trustee at Radcliffe College (1960-72), a lecturer at Harvard University, University of California, U.S. Naval War College, and other institutions. In 1979 she was appointed the chairperson of American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was also an expert skier and poker player.  Tuchman died on February 6, 1989, in Greenwich, Connecticut,  from complications of a stroke. She was seventy-seven. Tuchman's sister Josephine was active in the peace movement; she died in 1980.

"Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip and Germans, no less than other peoples, prepare for the last war." (from August 1914)

Peter Novick said in That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (1988) that most professional historians  regarded those who wrote history outside the academy "as the equivalent of chiropractors and naturopaths." (Ibib., p. 372) Tuchman did not agree, that it is a great disadvantage of not having been trained as a historian. Labelled as a popular historian, she received both popular and critical acclaim for her style and vision – "I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book," she once said, "I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry". Most of all, she saw herself as a narrator, not a philosopher, a seeker of the small, telling details, not the grand vision of the past.

It took Tuchman five years to finish Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (1956). She could work on it only half a day; the rest of time went to taking care of her children at home. Tuchman became first known in the 1960s with the publication of The Guns of August (1962), a study of events leading up to World War I. Orville Prescott said of the book in New York Times on February 5, 1962, that it is "a splendid and glittering performance, one of the finest works of history written in recent years". 

The Guns of August is generally considered to be her best work, although many historians have contested her thesis – that the outcome of the war was decided during the first month. "No more distressing moment can ever face a British government than that which requires it to come to a hard, fast and specific decision." This international bestseller  traced the actions of statesmen and patriots alike in Berlin, London, St. Petersburg and Paris. "For one August in its history Paris was French – and silent." (from August 1914, 1962) The story of the first 30 days of the first global war won The Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

The most famous reader of Tuchman's work was President John F. Kennedy, an amateur historian himself. Also member of his administation had read it just before the outbreak of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Copies of the book were placed in officers' day rooms around the world. Kennedy had telephoned Secretary of the Army Elvis Stahr Jr., saying, "I want you to read this. And I want every officer in the Army to read it." (Rhetoric in Martial Deliberations and Decision Making: Cases and Consequences by Ronald H. Carpenter, 2004, p. 86) In Roger Donaldson's film Thirteen Days (2000), a truthful dramatization of crisis, Kennedy mentions Tuchmans' work, and compares the situation with the chain of misjudgments, that had led to tragedy nearly 50 years earlier.

Tuchman was also a keen observer of contemporary political life. Opposed to what they called Robert Kennedy's "power grag" and his running for president,  Tuchman joined a Democrats for Keating Committee, along with Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Richard Hofstadter, Joseph Mankiewicz, Paul Newman and other prominent liberals. She said that nothing would be more disillusioning to the young people "than to see succeed the cynicism and opportunism of a man who had not the courage to  make the attempt himself and enjoys his brother's name as his main support." (A Nation Divided: The 1968 Presidential Campaign by Darcy G. Richardson, 2002, p. 63) In the 1968 Presidential race, Tuchman supported Eugene McCarthy, who casted her in his presidential cabinet as secretary of state. However, she did not consider herself as the best person for the post. "No tact, no patience," Tuchman explained. "You can't make enemies in a job like that, and I have no capacity to suffer fools." ('Echoes and Omens' by Lynn Darling, The Washington Post, October 5, 1978) In the late 1960s, Tuchman and her friend Henry Steele Commanger were active in the National Committee for an Effective Congress.

After President Richard Nixon's historical visit to Beijing in February 1972, Tuchman published the article 'If Mao Had Come to Washington: An Essay in Alternatives' (Foreign Affairs, October 1972), which drew from the curious fact, that in 1945 Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai offered to come to Washington for secret talks with President Roosevelt. "Twenty-seven years, two wars and x million lives later, after immeasurable harm wrought by the mutual suspicion and phobia of two great powers not on speaking terms, an American president, reversing the unmade journey of 1945, has traveled to Peking to treat with the same two Chinese leaders. Might the interim have been otherwise?" 

Tuchman did not like President Nixon. As the revelations of the Watergate scandal began to accumulate, she first called for his voluntary resignation, but then supported Commanger's position, that Nixon should be dismissed from his office; it was up to Congress not to set "a precedent of acquiescence" that could destroy the political system. Immediately after the Six-Day War, Tuchman visited Israel for the second time. Her experiences and impressions she later collected in Practicing History (1981). Tuchman summarized in 'Israel's Swift Sword', an article written for The Atlantic Monthly (September 1967), that "essentially the war was a conflict of societies."

Tuchman's second Pulitzer Prize came from the biography of U.S. General Joseph Stilwell (1971), in which she explored the United States' relationship with 20th-century China as epitomized in the wartime experiences of General Stilwell. With regard to U.S. foreign policy in China it questions "how could America act so confidently when it knew it was wrong?"

Among her other works are A Distant Mirror (1978), which presented a vivid picture of the life in 14th-century France, paralleling its natural and man-made disasters to our own century. Notes from China (1972) was  her account of a six-week visit to China. In The March of Folly (1984) Tuchman examined four conflicts and turning points in history: The Trojan War, The Protestant Secession, The American Revolution and The American War in Vietnam. "Character is fate," is one of Tuchman central themes – of course the Trojans suspected that the famous horse was full of Greeks or a cunning threat, but they did what their enemies wanted them to do. The Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and men who surrounded were competent and did not lose the Vietnam War through ignorance, which is for Tuchman another example how fatally flawed is the psychology of a governing class. "The power to command frequently causes failure to think," concluded the author who saw that folly is a child of power. Later, in her essay 'Learning from History,' she stated that young people opposed to war shouldn't to turn their backs on military service and other Vietnams can be prevented only by the presence of the college-educated in the Army.

In The First Salute (1988) Tuchman analyzed the American Revolution. She placed the war in the historical context of centuries-long conflicts between England and both France and Holland, and painted a vivid portrait of General George Washington. The title of the book refers to a salute of gunfire on November 16, 1776, when St. Eustatius, a small island in the West Indies, acknowledged a ship flying the flag the red-and-white flag of the Continental Congress, recognizing American sovereignty.

Practicing History was a collection of essays, in which Tuchman presented the historian as a storyteller, who discovers a thesis only after the material is thoroughly studied and understood. Historians must know when to stop research and start writing it. ''It is laborious, slow, often painful, sometimes agony. It means rearrangement, revision, adding, cutting, rewriting. But it brings a sense of excitement, almost of rapture; a moment on Olympus. In short, it is an act of creation.''

For further reading: 'Tuchman, Barbara W(ertheim), in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975) New Women in Social Sciences by Kathleen Bowman (1976);  'A Passion for Excellence: A Conversation between Barbara Tuchman and William Meredith' by Barbara Tuchman and William Meredith, in The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter 1981); 'Barbara Tuchman', in Legacy of Wisdom: Great Thinkers and Journalism by John Calhoun Merrill (1994); 'Tuchman, Barbara', in  Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by Dave Mote (1997); 'Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim (1912-1989)' by Walter A. Sutton, in A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing, ed. by D.R. Woolf (1998); 'The Guns of August showed me how history could bring the past to life' by Margaret MacMillan, The Guardian, 3 August (2014)

Selected works:

  • The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700, 1938
  • Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, 1956
  • The Zimmermann Telegram, 1958
  • The Guns of August, 1962 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - Elokuun tykit: ensimmäisen maailmansodan synty (suom. Antti Vahtera, 1964)
  • The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914, 1966
  • Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, 1970 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • Notes from China, 1972
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, 1978
  • Practicing History: Selected essays, 1981
  • America's Security in the 1980s, 1983 (with Henry Kissinger, ed. by Christopher Bertram)
  • The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, 1984
  • The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution, 1988
  • Notes from China, 2017 (Random House Trade Paperback edition)

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